Hundreds of Marhallese babies adopted on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu

Between 1996 and 1999, Republic of the Marshall Islands officials saw an explosion of 500 adoptions of Marshallese babies on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i.

The two islands served as gateways for parents from Hawai‘i and the Mainland who adopted the babies. Fees for the adoptions cost $25,000 and up.

The western Pacific island in Micronesia is located about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawai‘i and with a population of 50,000. The independent island group is struggling in an ailing economy made worst by Hurricane Paka and the return of the Pacific El Nino weather system in 1997.

Marshallese birthmothers seek out adoptions so their children can enjoy a better life, receive proper medical care and a better education, and generally improve their life opportunities.

Some Marshallese living on Kaua‘i have acted as facilitators for birthmothers since the late 1990s. Some have stayed in Hawai‘i, others have returned home.

In reaction to the wave of adopted babies born to Marshallese women, officials of the Marshall Islands government imposed a moratorium and adopted a new law that was intended to slow the international adoptions.

But the flow of Marshallese birthmothers to Hawai‘i is likely to continue because adoptive parents from the United States wanting children from the Marshall Islands are pursuing domestic adoptions over international adoptions.

In international adoptions, adoptive parents are required to secure a special visa from the U.S. Immigration Service. The visa would allow Marshallese children intended for adoption to come to the United States and become citizens.

The process is time-consuming, and more adoptive parents are opting instead for domestic adoptions.

In domestic adoptions, Marshallese birthmothers can fly to Hawai‘i and give birth at Wilcox Hospital or at Queen’s Hospital on O‘ahu. The mothers can then put the child up for adoption without the adoptive parents having to secure INS approval.

But domestic adoptions illegally and unethically circumvent a year-old Marshall Islands law that attempts to control and monitor adoptions of Marshallese children by American families, said Julie M. Walsh-Kroeker of the University of Hawai‘i, a Hawai‘i-based critic of domestic adoptions.

The law prohibits the solicitation of mothers to give up their children for adoption, and prohibits family members from pushing birthmothers to do so, Walsh-Kroeker said.

“It is insulting that the adoption agencies, the lawyers and the adoptive parents ignore the Marshall Islands’ law,” Walsh Kroeker said in an interview with The Garden Island. “They put their desire for a child over the respect and relationships with that child’s family and country.”

Walsh-Kroeker holds a doctorate degree in anthropology from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and spent four years in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, doing research during her post-graduate studies.

Scoffing at Walsh-Kroeker’s claims that domestic adoptions are not legal is Kaua‘i attorney Linda Lach, an adoption attorney who has handled about 75 Marshall Islands adoptions since 1996.

“It is perfectly legal for the Marshall Islands birthmother, as it is for any birthmother from any state, to come to Hawai‘i to give birth in Hawai‘i and have her child put up for adoption,” Lach told The Garden Island.

The domestic adoptions provide the Marshallese birthmother a unique opportunity to get proper medical care during pregnancy and to place her child in loving and financially-secure homes of adoptive parents, Lach said.

“The overwhelmingly good thing is that these babies have a chance at life,” said Lach, who mostly represents clients from the United States and Europe.

Before the surge in the adoption of Marshallese children in 1997, the Marshall Islands had about seven adoptions a year, according to the report by Walsh-Kroeker. She presented her findings at “An Out of Oceania Conference,” which was sponsored in 1999 by the Center for Pacific Islanders at the Manoa campus. The paper was an outgrowth of her decorate work on the Marshall Islands government and its people.

The numbers of Marshallese adoptions spiraled to 500 between 1996 and 1999 partly because of poor economic conditions in the Marshall Islands and natural disasters, she reported.

The Marshall Islands had a 15-year “compact of free association” treaty with the United States that was ratified in 1986. The pact has now been renegotiated.

The pact accorded the former entity of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands a political status of “free association.”

The pact provided to the Marshall Islands economic assistance from the U.S. government, including access to federal programs, the defense of the island group and other benefits.

In exchange, the United States claimed the right to defend the Marshall Islands and to deny access to it by other nations. A U.S. Army base and tracking station are located on Kwajalein Atoll.

But lesser funding was allotted in the last five years of the pact, apparently to encourage more self-sufficiency on the part of the Marshall Islands government, Walsh-Kroeker said.

The Marshall Islands also was hurt financially when the Asian Development Bank put stipulations in its loans to the government that unnecessary government jobs had to be eliminated, Walsh-Kroeker said. “Two thirds of the jobs were government jobs. At least half were lost, some through retirement,” she said.

The economy of the Marshall Islands suffered further when Hurricane Paka hit in late 1997, prompting rebuilding with Federal Emergency Management Agency relief funds.

The island nation also was affected by an El Nino period in the same year. Majuro Atoll, site of the capital of the Marshall Islands and a main population area, didn’t have any rain until May 1998, Walsh Kroeker said.

For some island residents, putting up their children up for foreign adoption offered the best way to make ends meet, Walsh Kroeker said.

The dramatic increase in adoptions in the late 1990s was a “phenomenon” that caught Marshall Islands officials off guard, as there were so few adoptions in previous years, Walsh-Kroeker said.

“The Marshall Islands were very attractive for a time, because they were so easy to get (adopted children),” Lach said.

In response, the Marshallese government imposed a moratorium on adoptions from 1999 to 2000, Walsh-Kroeker said.

Walsh-Kroeker said a social worker from the Brigham Young University was asked to help draft legislation to better regulate adoptions.

Proposed legislation called for home studies, a central adoption authority, and minimum amount of time adoptive parents were to stay in the Marshall Islands to allow them to learn about the culture and meet family members of the birthmothers, she said. But the measure was not approved.

At the same time, the INS inserted itself as a regulatory body to prevent abuses.

Prior to the time the moratorium was imposed, people flew to the Marshall Islands, adopted a child and brought the child back to the United States as their own, Lach said.

They did so without having to go through proper adoption procedures, as is the case in international adoptions, Lach said.

Responding to that situation, the INS began requiring adoptive parents to secure a special visa from it before Marshallese children could be adopted and be allowed to enter the United States as citizens, Walsh-Kroeker said.

Because of the compact of free association agreement, Marshallese adults and their children, at one time, were allowed to travel back and forth between the island chain and the United States, Lach said.

“Those people were taking advantage of the (compact) treaty,” Lach said.

In step with efforts to regulate adoptions, the Marshall Islands court required home studies for adoptive parents.

The Marshall Island parliament also passed a law year ago that establishes the central adoption authority, and prohibits solicitation of birthmothers to give up their children for adoption.

The new law also makes it illegal for families or others to pressure birthmothers to give up their children or to bribe them to do so.

While the law is on the books, the adoption review body awaits funding and organization, Walsh-Kroeker said.

Lach said she doesn’t believe the existence of board will hamper future adoptions from the Marshall Islands.

“I don’t think the Marshall Islands is interested in shutting down their own adoption process. They didn’t do that during the moratorium,” Lach said. “They took a step back and decided what kind of process they wanted to have.”

But Walsh-Kroeker believes the enforcement of the law may be “difficult because it is so political and sticky.”

Marshallese traditions have allowed for the adoption of Marshallese children by family members and extended family members, Walsh-Kroeker said. Families in the Marshall Islands will not like having the government tell them how to mange their families, Walsh-Kroeker predicted.

But some adoptive parents will want to go through the international adoption process because they want to find out more about the Marshallese culture, Lach said.

“They want to meet the extended family,” Lach said. “They want to have an appreciation of the children’s culture so they can share it with the child.”

However, adoptive parents are more likely to pursue domestic adoptions because they will not have to deal with red tape posed by the INS, Lach said. Domestic adoptions could take a month or longer, depending on the paperwork involved.

Since the federal government began regulating adoptions, Lach said all her cases have involved newborns,” which is what her clients, mostly professionals, want.

“If you want a newborn, and many people do, the Marshall Islands is one place to accomplish that,” Lach said.

Lach said adoptions she handles run between $25,000 to $35,000. Her fees are drawn from the payment by adoptive parents.

Lach said unlike other attorneys who work with agencies and follow up only with the paperwork to process the adoption, she takes the adoption cases from the beginning.

Lach said she locates birthmother, brings her to Hawai‘i, arranges medical care, arranges for her accommodations and works with the mother through the pregnancy.

Mothers generally come to Hawai‘i about a month before giving birth. Lach also arranges for home studies of the adoptive parents to give assurance to birthmothers that their children will be going to safe environments.

Lach said she has seen more Marshallese birthmothers come to Hawai‘i to give birth since the intervention by the INS, a signal suggesting Marshallese adoptions run through Hawaii and neighbor islands will remain upbeat in the future.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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